Caroline Norton, a True Case of a Competency Hearing

My piece on Wednesday to answer a question about competency hearings during the Georgian era reminded me of the one in the series Victoria, where Duchess Sophie, one of Queen Victoria’s Mistresses of the Robes (ladies-in-waiting) is to be placed in an institution because she has fallen in love with and is having an affair with a footman at the palace. The character of Sophie is based on a true event.

In season three of Victoria, a lady in waiting called Sophie, Duchess of Monmouth has an affair with a footman, knowledge of which is used against her by her husband. This is the true story behind that devastating plot line.

Caroline Norton, born Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Sheridan, on 22 March 1808, in London (died 15 June 1877, London), was an English poet and novelist whose matrimonial difficulties prompted successful efforts to secure legal protection for married women.

Caroline’s father was Thomas Sheridan and her mother the novelist Caroline Henrietta Callander. Her father was an actor, soldier and colonial administrator, the son of the prominent Irish playwright and Whig statesman Richard Brinsley Sheridan and his wife Elizabeth Ann Linley. Caroline’s Scottish mother was the daughter of a landed gentleman, Col. Sir James Callander of Craigforth and Lady Elizabeth MacDonnell, sister of an Irish peer, the 1st Marquess of Antrim. Mrs. Sheridan authored three short novels described by one of her daughter’s biographers as “rather stiff with the style of the eighteenth century, but none without a certain charm and wit….”

She also began to write while in her teens. The Sorrows of Rosalie (1829) and The Undying One (1830) caused her to be hailed as a female Byron. In 1827 she made an unfortunate marriage to the Honourable George Norton, a barrister and politician, whom she left in 1835.

George Norton was reportedly prone to jealousy, which was exasperated by the social circle Caroline kept that included such “celebs” as Benjamin Disraeli, Fanny Kemble, and Mary Shelley. Caroline earned enough money from her writing poems and books to support herself and her three sons.

Caroline left her husband in 1836 and no recourse could be found. As I mentioned above, Caroline was able to earn enough money to support herself and her children. Bitter to the core and embarrassed by her action (and perhaps a bit jealous of her popularity), George Norton sued his wife in court, saying as she was his “property,” any money she earned or items of worth she had accumulated was rightfully his. Therefore, Norton abducted their sons and hid them away with relatives, first in Scotland and then in Yorkshire. He then accused Caroline of having an affair with a close friend, Lord Melbourne (yes, the same “Lord M” of Victoria PBS show fame), who was then Prime Minister, representing the Whig party. Norton demanded £10,000 from Melbourne, but Melbourne refused to be blackmailed and George instead took the Prime Minister to court.

Lord Melbourne wrote to Lord Holland, “The fact is [George] a stupid brute, and [Caroline] had not temper nor dissimulation enough to enable her to manage him.” Even so, initially, Melbourne pleaded with Caroline to return to Norton, but a few days later he made a public statement of sympathy for her decision.

This conduct upon his part seems perfectly unaccountable…You know that I have always counselled you to bear everything and remain to the last. I thought it for the best. I am afraid it is no longer possible. Open breaches of this kind are always to be lamented, but you have the consolation that you have done your utmost to stave this extremity off as long as possible. [Joan Perkin, Women and Marriage in Nineteenth-Century England. Routledge, 1989, pp. 83-84.]

The trial, which lasted for nine days, was settled on the side of Melbourne, but the scandal brought down his government. Quite soon society was on to the next bit of “gossip,” but, by then, Caroline’s reputation was ruined, and she could no longer count Lord Melbourne among her friends.

In spite for his loss in court, Norton still kept Caroline away from her children and even refused her a divorce. Under English law in 1836, children were the legal property of their father and there was little Caroline could do to regain custody

Caroline, however, did not take to her bed in fear of her husband. Instead, she used what we nowadays would call her “platform” to campaign for a change in English law, which presented the children to the father and never to the mother. She actually petitioned Queen Victoria for changes for woman.

Her protest letters to Queen Victoria (English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century, 1854; A Letter to the Queen on Lord Chancellor Cranworth’s Marriage and Divorce Bill, 1857) had great influence on the Marriage and Divorce Act of 1857, which abolished some of the inequities to which married women were subject. (Caroline Norton)

When Parliament debated divorce reform in 1855, Caroline submitted to members a detailed account of her own marriage, and described the difficulties faced by women as the result of existing laws.

An English wife may not leave her husband’s house. Not only can he sue her for restitution of “conjugal rights,” but he has a right to enter the house of any friend or relation with whom she may take refuge…and carry her away by force…

If her husband take proceedings for a divorce, she is not, in the first instance, allowed to defend herself…She is not represented by attorney, nor permitted to be considered a party to the suit between him and her supposed lover, for “damages.”

If an English wife be guilty of infidelity, her husband can divorce her so as to marry again; but she cannot divorce the husband, a vinculo, however profligate he may be….

Those dear children, the loss of whose pattering steps and sweet occasional voices made the silence of [my] new home intolerable as the anguish of death…what I suffered respecting those children, God knows … under the evil law which suffered any man, for vengeance or for interest, to take baby children from the mother.

Lawrence Stone, Road to Divorce: England 1530–1987. Oxford University Press, 1990, page 178. tells us, “It was because of Caroline’s protests, writings and petitions that vital changes to divorce and custody laws were passed in the mid-1800s. In 1839, the Custody of Infants Act was passed, which overruled the idea that parental rights over children of divorce would ultimately fall to the father. Then, in 1857, came the Matrimonial Causes Act, which allowed for a civil court to regulate on divorce. Finally, the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870 gave women the right to being their own legal entity and ruled that her wages and property were her own and not the domain of her husband’s.

“These were all vital pieces of legal reform that gave women in the UK many of the rights that had previously been denied them. And without Caroline Norton, they might not have happened when they did.”


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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